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How ministers killed age bill

Minister Sarah Opendi

Opendi led cabinet rejection of motion widely seen as ploy to allow President Museveni stand again in 2021

Before speaker of parliament Rebecca Kadaga ultimately shot down Nakifuma MP Robert Kafeero Ssekitooleko’s controversial age-limit bill last week, cabinet had in two meetings signaled it wouldn’t support it, The Observer can reveal. 

Last week’s meeting was the second time cabinet discussed the bill that on paper sought to raise the retirement age of judges and give life tenure to electoral commissioners. However, critics believe the bill was a ploy to amend article 102 (b) of the constitution and remove the 75-year cap on an incoming president.

Ssekitooleko’s bill was first discussed by cabinet on August 24, a day before the MP tabled his motion in parliament. During that particular cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, debate was heated and opinions sharply divided.

Ruth Nankabirwa, the government chief whip, presented the matter to the meeting as part of her weekly cabinet briefing on issues happening in parliament. Several ministers reportedly shot the bill down, wondering why such an important piece of legislation would be left to a private member to champion.

According to our sources, NRM secretary general Justine Kasule Lumumba went as far as suggesting that the bill was pushed by the opposition to discredit government.

“After a lengthy debate, we decided that the Justice and Constitutional affairs minister [Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire] tells parliament that government does not support this bill because we promised Ugandans that we will set up a constitutional review commission to handle the process of amending the constitution,” a minister who spoke anonymously said yesterday.

However, this minister told us that they were surprised to realize that despite cabinet rejection, Nankabirwa had gone ahead to mobilize MPs to support Ssekitooleko’s motion.

This appears to have confused some ministers, with one of the new faces in cabinet telling this writer, moments before Ssekitooleko tabled his motion, that he had no idea what was going on.

“In cabinet we don’t know this bill but at parliament, [Nankabirwa] is busy mobilising for it…you fail to understand what is going on, and since we can’t understand the dynamics, I think we will be left with no option but to support it,” the minister said.

On the floor of parliament, Nankabirwa was joined by a number of ministers, including attorney general William Byaruhanga, in cheering on Ssekitooleko as Otafiire, on the other hand, sat quietly until deputy speaker Jacob Oulanyah adjourned the House. On September 14, Nankabirwa returned to cabinet with the bill ahead of the afternoon’s parliamentary session but she was opposed again.

This time, minister of state for primary healthcare Sarah Opendi was reportedly vocal in her objection to the bill. According to a cabinet source, Opendi claimed that Ssekitooleko had received money from an unknown source to sell the bill. Asked on Tuesday to confirm this, Opendi declined to delve into what transpired in cabinet.

“What we discuss in cabinet is not for the public but I can confirm to you that I spoke out [against the bill] because I felt that we are being derailed; we have not made six months and we get diverted with a constitutional amendment…the focus should be to fill the gaps [in service delivery] than being derailed,” Opendi said. 

From his office at parliament, Ssekitooleko closely monitored the goings-on in the cabinet meeting, this time chaired by deputy Prime Minister Moses Ali at the nearby Office of the Prime Minister. While a minister who attended the meeting said cabinet still maintained its opposition, in parliament Otafiire said government had not reached a common position.

“As the steward of constitutional affairs, I cannot pronounce myself on this motion before I have consulted my cabinet colleagues because we are collectively responsible for what we submit here at parliament and what we put out to the country,” Otafiire said.

Surprisingly even in defeat, Ssekitooleko is back mobilising the bill’s supporters to regroup and re-strategize. Their first meeting was scheduled for Tuesday. Asked about it, Ssekitooleko said, “it’s about other things, not the motion.”

sadabkk@observer.ug

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